Vacation Day Twelve: The Flume Trail
I stayed in a $35/night motel in Reno. Less than 8 hours elapsed between check-in and check-out. I managed to get to Incline Village around 9am to get my mountain bike fixed and to find some food. I started with Tunnel Creek Cafe who tried valiantly to help but didn't have the right tools for my bike. They tend to fix their fleet, so while they have a full set of tools they don't have the specific thing needed to straighten my derailleur hanger. They recommended Village Ski Loft as a more full-fledged bike shop. When I told them my plan for the day (get bike fixed ASAP, hit as many trails as possible, drive to SF) they managed to move me up to the front of the queue. They then recommended that I eat at Wildflower Cafe while I waited an hour instead of a day for my bike. Breakfast was fantastic, the bike was fixed quickly, and then I caught the Tunnel Creek shuttle to do the Flume Trail. Three for three on merchants in Incline Village, NV!
The guys at Tunnel Creek Cafe said that I should expect to take 2-4 hours to do the Flume Trail route from start to finish, so I was expecting to take about 2 hours barring any major stoppages. It took me 80 blissful minutes. I give all credit to my bike for being overly capable on almost any terrain. A non-technical trail like the Flume Trail makes you feel competent when you're on a fancy mountain bike.
Since I finished so quickly I had a few hours to kill if I was to avoid traffic in Sacramento and the Bay Area, so I sat on Tunnel Creek Cafe's porch drinking beer and chatting with other people also in no rush. I met a guy who had been mountain biking for 50 years, some retirees who've spent their last 5 years doing what I did on these 12 days, and a father/son pair who had done a ton of hiking in the Sierras. It was nice to cap off my directionless whirlwind vacation by hanging out with people who were pretty much on the same trip.
Miles driven: 2741
Miles cycled: 158
Miles walked: 65
Hottest temperature: 108F
Coldest temperature: 27F
Best campsite: Kaibab National Forest. Location undisclosed!
Oldest tree: 3200 years, I think. Maybe one was older in the Inyo grove.
Best stars: Inyo National Forest's Grandview campsite has amazingly clear skies and seems to be far from any flight path. There's nothing up there but the cosmos.
Best detour: The Loneliest Road in America was a wonderful, unexpected surprise.
Favorite person: The ranger at Kaibab National Forest who so gleefully explained all of the places that I should explore, and how he'd spent the last 15 years exploring the area, unable to resist the gravity of the place.
Vacation Day Eleven: Great Basin and the Loneliest Road in America
For once I read the goofy little NPS newspaper for the park I was in and it was pretty helpful! Generally when I'm going to a national park I've done some research first, but given the surprise visit to Great Basin I had no idea what there was to do. Apparently there are caves, a bunch of bristlecone pines, some subalpine lakes, a glacier, and a 13,000ft peak. Huh!
Because I went to bed at sunset the day before I woke up well before sunrise. I read for a little bit, then got going and packed all of my stuff in my car. I got to the visitors center just before it opened, giving me a chance to scrape some of the stink off before going on a cave tour with a bunch of other park visitors. It was a bit hokey like all other guided cave tours in the history of the universe, but at least there weren't any multicolored lightbulbs or sound effects. In fact, the formations were impressive and the discussion from the guide was mostly around geologic history. Highly recommended if you haven't already soured on all guided cave tours thanks to places like Luray Caverns.
After the tour was over, I drove up the mountain and parked at 10,500ft to go for a quick hike to see some lakes and trees. The hike ended up taking a lot longer than I wanted it to because I couldn't help but linger in places like this:
After a short loop that visited a couple subalpine lakes (they don't drain, they just collect/evaporate/freeze/repeat) I realized that I'd kick myself if I didn't go see the Bristlecone Pine grove that was only about a mile away.
This tree is 3200 years old, and still growing.
Walking among living organisms that started growing so long ago is hard to describe. There's an overwhelming feeling of insignificance, and you can't help but maintain a reverent silence.
I was going to head back to the car after the Bristlecones, but again worried that I'd be ticked at myself if I didn't go see the glacier... after all, it was only another few miles round trip! I continued uphill, beyond where only Bristlecones grow and above the treeline. On the way I met a pair of brothers and their wives, all retired, all full of stories of trips they've done and places they've seen and where they want to go next. I chatted with them for a while about long distance cycling, extended backpacking trips, their favorite places on earth, etc. When they found out that I was planning to get to Tahoe/Reno by the end of the day, we found a way to stop the conversation so I could get going towards the glacier. We all wished each other well on our journeys and I sped up the hill with them slowly climbing behind me.
I got to the end of the trail, nestled deep in a cirque that didn't fail to remind me again of my insignificance. Looking in any direction from that trail terminus you see a dizzyingly massive sight: 2500' cliffs, a glacier that's been around for millenia, or a view down the valley to the flat basin 5000' below.
On the way down, I once again got lost in conversation with those two retired couples, and once again who knows how much time passed. We talked more about exploring and appreciating what's around us, and upon parting ways I told them that they "are who I want to be!" Their lives seem pretty ideal to me. Maybe I'm just regretting the fact that my vacation's almost over.
Back in the car by 2pm, I had to cross all of Nevada to get to my destination for the night... and I had to cross all of Nevada via the Loneliest Road in America. Not a misnomer at all! I spent hours barely touching the steering wheel or pedals, seeing other vehicles only rarely, and only passing through a couple of tiny towns that seemed to exist only to support the road. Prior to being a road, it was the Pony Express route. I can't even begin to imagine what it must've been like to ride a horse across such a vast expanse of nothingness. Even in a car going 70mph I was glad to have enough supplies with me to live comfortably for about a week should I suffer a breakdown and somehow not get a hitch to safety.
Vacation Day Ten: To Great Basin National Park
Ok, so Vacation Day Nine ran into a lot of Vacation Day Ten, but there's a little left to talk about:
Driving blindly north from Zion on I-15 without a map, I wondered if I was going to have to get all the way to Salt Lake City before a road would be willing to take me to the west... then I saw a sign for Great Basin National Park, punched it into my phone, and found out that it's more or less on the way to Tahoe from Zion!
The drive along the back roads to Great Basin was incredibly peaceful. Wide open pastures with massive ridges between them, and enormous storms making their way up each ridge. There's something amazing about watching a thunderstorm visibly dumping rain from 50 miles away, especially when you get to catch glimpses of faraway lightning strikes.
I got to the entrance to Great Basin not knowing if I'd be able to stay there or if I would have to keep driving in search of a motel in the middle of nowhere Nevada. The information sign said that all campsites were first come first served, but that half of the campgrounds were closed for construction starting today. I guess it's the start of their off season.
I got one of the last spots in the campground I went to first, set things up, and enjoyed the babbling stream next to my secluded little campsite.
Tomorrow I'm going to explore the park (it seems fairly small for tourism, but amazing for backcountry exploration... which isn't an option given my timeline) and then keep heading west, aiming to get somewhere near Tahoe by tomorrow night.
Vacation Day Nine: A Storm Hits
I got a reasonably early start today and headed into the main Zion visitors' center to get my permit for tomorrow. The backcountry permitting process is a little confusing at first, but it makes a lot of sense in retrospect. I'd still prefer it if they used this system for everyone else and let me get permits whenever and however I wanted, but maybe they'll get around to that in time for my next visit.
After getting my Tuesday night permit, I headed out of the park and back in via a side road to go where my Monday night permit had me camping. The road was stunning, going up several thousand feet and along the way changing from arid desert to high pine forest. I parked just before the sign that said "ROAD MAY BE IMPASSABLE IN WET CONDITIONS" because they were calling for some rain that night. I ate a quick lunch then threw my pack on and headed into the Zion Wilderness. (Distinct from the National Park, kind of. It means that ~88% of the Zion territory will remain undeveloped so it'll always be possible to enjoy the incredibly canyons without having to ride a bus full of people who missed the turn for Disney World.)
Four beautiful meadow-and-vista filled miles later, I got to my campsite, which was really nicely set up. There was an access trail that meandered for about 1/8 mile before clearing out into room for ~4 tents underneath a couple of large pine trees. I couldn't see the main trail from the site, and from the map I'd have needed a flare gun to get anyone's attention. Pretty nice compared to the tourist-laden main area of the park! I set up camp, dropped as much weight as I could from my pack and then struck out again to do a 6 mile loop over the West Rim of Zion, which provides amazing views down into the valley...
...but I only made it about a half a mile before a massive thunderhead rose up over the ridge I was heading towards and started rumbling menacingly. So I headed back to my tent and took a nap just in time to avoid heavy rain. 90 minutes later the rain had stopped, the skies turned blue, and I headed back out. Just like the storms at the Grand Canyon, storms here seem to come in a fury but leave quickly.
Back on the trail the skies were much clearer and everything was beautiful after the rain. About 1/3 into the loop, however, another storm came in. I kept walking convinced it would last for only 30-60 minutes and would clear out in time for me to get some of those views I was aiming for. Little did I know that this was actually one of the worst storm systems to hit the area in a long time, and it wasn't going to just clear out in a matter of minutes.
By the time I finished the loop, mostly viewless, I was muddy and shivering, eager to get into my tent and warm up. The rains were still coming hard by the time the sun was almost down, so I cooked in my tent and curled up to go to bed.
Each storm did indeed take 30-60 minutes to move through, there were just a lot of them in a row... you could tell when one storm left and another was coming because the rains would slow to a light drizzle, and then fire up again with a new level of ferocity. I don't know what time it was when the strongest one hit, but I was woken up to my tent trying to roll over on top of me, so I rolled back. Everything was soaked, including my sleeping bag and all of the clothes I was wearing. To keep things from getting worse, I zipped my rain jacket around my sleeping bag at the legs, and wrapped up in my fleece and everything I could find that was wool... and then I waited.
Dawn took forever
to arrive, as it does when all you want is for the sun to come up. As soon as there was any trace of light in the sky, I packed up my gear and headed out. When I left the car to start this hike I was carrying 7 liters of water (~15lbs). I only had a half liter left for the walk back but the pack was much heavier thanks to all of the mud and water that my gear had absorbed.
I finally got back to the car, unable to feel my hands or feet, but not shivering thanks to wearing most of the layers I had available on my torso. Some Forest Service guys happened to drive by, checked in on me, and let me know that it might be a bit challenging getting back out to civilization thanks to all of the rain. The dirt access road was completely flooded, and the paved road that I found so beautiful the day before lost massive chunks to the floodwaters. Ruby Sue Mk.II did well, though, and despite occasionally getting muddy water flowing up on top of the hood didn't hesitate to get me back to the warm winds of the desert. In just 45 minutes of driving on that windy mountain road it went from 40F and rain to 80F and hairdryer wind.
My next destination was the very back side of Zion, the Kolob Canyon Visitors Center where I was to start the second hike. I was supposed to hike to the Kolob Arch, the largest free-standing natural bridge in the world (probably), but after spending an hour drying all of my gear out in the hot parking lot and talking to the ranger, I decided it'd be better to just bail on Zion and head over to Death Valley or somewhere else that's guaranteed to not be wet.
But wait! One more major detour! I found out that I-15 north of Las Vegas was washed out, and the only way to get back to California reliably was to head north. So I went north.
Vacation Day Eight: Tourism in Zion
I set my alarm for 6am, woke up at 6am, and my first thought was "trust no clock". I've been through so many timezones and latitudes at an already confusing time of year that when I got up at 6 and it wasn't even close to dawn I (wrongly) assumed that it was long before 6. Apparently, dawn's coming a bit after 7am here right now. The depths of winter must be dreadful here! Does the sun come up at 10am?
I managed to get into Zion a bit before 10am, miraculously found a place to stash my car, and sorted out the backcountry situation for Monday and Tuesday. After that I jumped on a revoltingly crowded bus to head into the canyon.
What is this? Disneyworld?
I figured I should hike the Narrows first, since a flash flood watch was due to begin at noon and that's the one reason you would definitely not want to be in the Narrows. I managed to get a couple of miles upriver and back down with a beautiful sliver of blue sky visible above me the entire time. The Narrows were a little crowded (not nearly as bad as the bus!) but were so ridiculously fun and pretty that it didn't matter that much. Everyone was either having a blast wading upriver or was gingerly toeing their way to the nearest shoreline. The further up I got, the more intrepid my fellow hikers were... there were a couple of people with insanely expensive camera equipment tempting fate to get the perfect shot of sunlight reflecting down through the canyon and onto the lower walls. Meanwhile I had my $150 point-and-shoot securely contained inside two ziplocs.
After the Narrows, I spent a bit of time drying myself and my stuff out, and then proceeded to what was billed "a very strenuous hike": the climb up to Angels' Rest.
It's not often that something so popular actually gets me unnerved, but the trail to Angels' Rest pushed my resolve a bit. The first mile is a steep climb up a sidewalk (so it doesn't erode to nothingness at the first sign of rain), the next mile is a series of short switchbacks that bring you up to about 1500' above the valley floor, and then the last half mile is spent clinging to whatever you can find so you don't drop a couple thousand feet down. There are several places where there isn't room for two people to pass each other without one of them taking their last tumble. After a few such places, my brain turned The Fear off and it was all fine, but I was climbing like one of those Narrows hikers afraid of falling in 6" of water for the first several pitches of the climb.
The top actually didn't provide my favorite views of the canyon because they were so obscured by the enormity of everything, but the feeling of accomplishment and the stiff, cool breeze were plenty of reward. Descending the way I came was comfortable thanks to the enormous height of the thing... 2000' just didn't look real to me, so I was able to process only what I was walking on, not on the imminent peril a few feet to either side of me.
Angels' Rest in Zion from beckham on Vimeo.
My knees, on the other hand... not happy. Not at all happy. I should have acknowledged my extremely advanced age and brought my trekking poles. Or a walker.
I wandered for another few miles along the Emerald Pools and caught a bunch of amazing views of the valley over lush forests made possible by a steady stream of water oozing through the Navajo Sandstone high above.
Today I hiked many more miles and many more thousands of feet of up/down than I intended given the ambitious backpacking trips I've got planned for the next couple of days, but that's what beer and ibuprofen are for.
Tomorrow I head to the West Rim for a backcountry adventure. No more overcrowded buses for me!
Vacation Day Seven: Hadn't Showered in Five Days...
This morning was spent eating too much breakfast on my perch and lazily packing. I was a little sad to leave my campsite and the rim of the Grand Canyon, but I'm certain I'll be back in the not-too-distant future.
On the drive out to paved roads, I saw a few deer, an army of Kaibab Squirrels, and a mountain lion!
I saw my first mountain lion a few years ago in Point Reyes National Seashore, and it was terrifying: a few hours after the sun had gone down, two giant glowing eyes staring at me and my feeble headlamp. This time it was 9am on a sunny morning and I was comfortably esconced in my mighty Subaru, cruising along on a smooth fire road. I much prefer today's method of viewing dangerous wild animals, I think.
This picture doesn't do the Kaibab Squirrel justice... the body looks almost black, and the tail is a shimmering silver, and the ears are huge and fluffy.
Hurricane, UT is only a few hours away from the North Rim, so I had plenty of time to stop and see whatever caught my fancy. I stopped in at Pipe Spring National Monument, which initially seemed like a lame, but reasonable, National Park Service installation. History of the Paiute Tribe, the Mormon settlers, etc... until I got to the penultimate interpretive sign of the small circumference trail: the place was claimed by the park service as a rest stop for people traveling between Zion National Park and Grand Canyon National Park. Seriously? Is that all a National Monument is?
An hour or so after leaving Pipe Spring National Monument I arrived in Hurricane, UT (your bet's as good as mine on why it's named Hurricane) and checked in to the cheapest motel available. I took three showers, charged up all of my stuff, and stashed the bikes. It's a good thing it's the cheapest motel I could find, because it's across the street from a staggeringly good and expensive restaurant. If you ever find yourself in Utah and want good food and actual beer, you'll be hard pressed to find somewhere better than Baristas in Hurricane. The $80 tab sounds awful until you find out that it was four beers, two appetizers, and two entrees.
Tomorrow I head in to Zion to see what backpacking options are available.
Vacation Day Six: Sore, Stinky, Smug
My knee was still in pretty bad shape this morning. And not just one, but both wrists were complaining pretty loudly. Ok, normal tourist day. I locked both of the bikes to a tree, left my tent up with my sleeping stuff inside it (this spot is a hot commodity, if I'd packed up completely I'm certain someone would have snagged it and I'd be forced to camp more than 20' from the rim of the Canyon like some kind of peasant), and headed into the National Park proper.
The general store in the park happened to have both unlimited refills on not-terrible-coffee and somewhat-terrible wifi. I ended up spending a few hours there after tending to my wounds with the limited first aid supplies that they sell there. I bought a pack of five (5!) band-aids, because that was the closest thing they had to gauze.
After I'd done a brief bit of internet-updating (see previous posts), I started researching where I should go next. Capitol Reef looks amazing, but at 5.5 hours away it seems like it'll eat up too much time to get there and back, so it's officially ruled out for this trip. I think I might plan a 2-3 week trip to Salt Lake City and surrounding area at some point to go see it, but for now it's off in the future somewhere. (Note to self: If you do a SLC trip, bring plenty of booze.)
After internetting and researching, I took a stroll along the main touristy trails on the North Rim. It's lovely, if you can ignore the RVs and the sound of hair dryers emanating from the bathrooms
. I died a little when I heard a hair dryer, but I guess we can't all be bald and beautiful.
Bright Angel Point, the highlight of the walk around the North Rim was totally worth it: a 270 degree view of the Canyon, reachable by crossing over some catwalk-like paths that made some people stop and wonder if it would be worth it. I heard someone say "hold on to the rock, you'll feel more stable that way." Good advice, though I was too busy snapping pictures and hanging my head out as far as I could to soak in the altitude. Five thousand vertical feet is an amazing sensation.
After finishing up the little 3 mile loop around the populated part of the North Rim, I drove out to Cape Royal and Point Imperial, both of which afforded similar views, although Angel's Window was the coolest spot in my opinion. Cape Royal is a natural bridge leads you out to a fantastic vista where you can actually see the Colorado River. Angel's View looks through that natural bridge directly at the Colorado:
It was almost late enough in the day, and I'd done enough Normal Touristing to feel relatively accomplished, so I headed back to my campsite in the Kaibab National Forest. Oddly, I was worried the whole drive back that I would come to my site and there'd be a group of people who put their tents up around my fire ring, and I'd have to deal with (gasp) people in my
campsite. My fears were allayed when I got back to my bikes, my tent, and my perch over the Canyon, and not another soul in sight.
I watched the sun set, fat and happy from eating only the finest pop-tarts/banana/peanut butter sandwiches, revelling in the distance between me and the relative hoards of people in the National Park itself.
They say that you go to the North Rim if you want solitude, but from what I saw the North Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park offers very little solitude. There are trails that you can take where you won't see anyone, but I couldn't find a single overlook that wasn't swarmed with people. Between my amazing accidental experience in the Inyo National Forest and the three days I've spent in the Kaibab National Forest, I'm sold on the idea that visiting National Parks is good, but exploring National Forests is better. I guess if I just had
to have a flush toilet around, I'd prefer a National Park. But then what would I do with my shitshovel?
Vacation Day Five: The Rainbow Rim Trail
This morning I woke up to overcast skies, and it looked like it was threatening to rain. I decided to jump on the mountain bike anyway and do the northern half of the Rainbow Rim Trail. There were occasional sprinkles, but nothing I could call rain. Who cares about the weather, though, the trail was amazing. Rolling singletrack (room for one bike, not a lot of room for error) through quiet coniferous forest filled with black squirrels with silver tails (the Kaibab Squirrel, apparently, only lives in the Kaibab National Forest) and wildflowers.
There are five vistas along the Rainbow Rim Trail, each one is a trailhead with some amount of parking and some amount of room to camp. The guy at the Kaibab National Forest recommended that I stay at Locust, which turned out to be a great decision. It's the middle of the five vistas, so it made splitting the trail into two rides easy. I'm not sure I'd have survived a full ~38 mile out and back, between muscle aches and overall exhaustion. I love mountain biking, but it sure isn't kind on the body.
When you're approaching a vista, you can tell because the sparse pines start showing a lot more open sky between them... it's a good idea to slow down when you start getting to one of the vistas. There are a few places where I wouldn't be surprised if someone shot off the edge and took a serious tumble. The views and solitude afforded at the vistas were incredible. I saw one hiker and two forest service workers in the 2.5 hours it took me to go out and back on the north half of the trail.
The hiker was apparently nervous about being outside, so despite slowing down, ringing my bell, saying "good morning!", etc... he pulled his pistol and squared up. I'm glad he wasn't completely unaware of how to use a gun, or he might have gotten to the point of pointing it at me or even pulling the trigger. Yikes. I wonder what he thought a pistol would do to any actual threat he might encounter out here... a bear wouldn't slow down, a mountain lion would be on him before he knew it was there, and otherwise it's just an accident waiting to happen. Idiot.
The good thing about the unpredictable weather here is that you can see it coming with at least a half hour of advanced warning. By the time I got back from the morning ride the sky was threatening, so I grabbed a book, some lunch, and a beer, and headed into my tent for lunch/reading/nap. I woke up a few hours later when the sun lit up my tent again, which was my cue to get back on the bike and ride the southern half of the trail.
Rainbow Rim Trail, North Timp from beckham on Vimeo.
The southern half seemed to be a lot easier. There was a little less climbing, but I think in general it was that I was starting to get a bit more used to the bike. There are an awful lot of controls in weird places on a full suspension mountain bike, so if you're not used to it you'll find yourself hanging on for dear life and wishing you had an extra hand to engage the front and rear suspension or the seat dropper.
Again, roaring through pine forest and out to amazing vistas, I was having a great time... until I got a little too confident and bashed my knee and wrist up pretty well. Of course I also banged up the bike, so I have some repair work to do in the next day or two. I limped back to camp, tended to my wounds, and watched as a massive thunderstorm approached from the other side of the canyon while the sun set. Just before the storm hit, I was comfortably in my tent, well-fed and happy to be going to bed.
We'll see how I feel in the morning, but I might just do normal tourist stuff on the North Rim tomorrow.